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galapagos quest
GalapagosQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect that will take a team of scientists and explorers on a journey of discovery through the extraordinary Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Follow along here for daily reports on their quest.

GalapagosQuest: Islands Still in Danger?

GalapagosQuest team
The underwater GalapagosQuest team. From left to right are underwater naturalist Fernando Ortiz, Christina, John, Jean Michel Cousteau, Dan, and marine biologist, Dick Murphy

Real 28K


March 22, 1999
Web posted at: 12:50 p.m. EST (1750 GMT)

By Dan Buettner

(Classroom Connect) -- Three weeks ago, we set out with the ambitious goal of gauging the environmental health of the Galapagos Islands today. Our plan was to follow Charles Darwin's 1835 route and see what he saw.

Whether or not you agree with his theory of evolution, his careful observations brought to light creatures that exist no where else on Earth. They sparked a debate that is still raging 165 years later. And the question is this: How does new life begin? Darwin called this, the "mystery of mysteries."

The Galapagos is still probably the best place on Earth to explore this question. The creatures that arrived here developed and changed over the millennia in a unique way. The islands thus became a petri dish of sorts and the creatures in it, an experiment. That experiment has been running now since the islands popped out of the sea some 5 million years ago, and scientists have the benefit of observing the results. But now, just as they're starting to make sense of what they see, the experiment is getting contaminated.

During GalapagosQuest, we gathered data, interviewed scientists, talked with locals and made observations. In general, the beauty and uniqueness of these islands impressed us.

More on GalapagosQuest
from Classroom Connect:
     • Christina's Critters
     • Team Update
     • Set the Course
     • Mystery Photo
     • Quest Map
     • What's New

The dedicated people of the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station work hard to protect the islands and their wildlife. Thanks to their efforts, the endangered giant tortoises ar*e beginning to recover and many animals, like sea lions, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies are doing well. We found no ozone, low haze levels, and excellent water quality. But we also found that some 60 new species enter the Galapagos each year -- species that contaminate the petri dish, so to speak.

Each week, we have zoomed in on one of the main environmental issues facing the Galapagos. We reported both sides of the story and then asked you, our 80,000 online collaborators, to decide how the issues should be handled. Here are the results.

Week 1: Eradicate 100,000 goats (introduced by humans) to save 600 giant tortoises on Isabela Island? Your answer: Eradicate the goats

Dan hams it up for the underwater camera   

Week 2: Close the season on sea cucumbers (which clean the sea bottom) even though it threatens local fishermen's ability to make a living? Your answer: Protect the sea cucumber.

Week 3: Should tourists be limited even if it means drastically cutting conservation funds? Your answer: Limit tourism

In each case, the results came down soundly on the side of the environment. We are not the first to recognize the problem here. In 1978 UNESCO named the Galapagos a World Heritage Site, meaning that it has protection from the international community.

Still, the islands continued to deteriorate. So, in 1995, monitors recommended putting the Galapagos Islands on a list of "World Heritage Sites in Danger." This would have meant focusing international attention on the environmental crisis here. Ecuador fought the listing, and in the end UNESCO decided to not to add it to this list.

Some improvements have been made since then, including passing a Special Law that to deal with environmental problems. Many scientists and conservationists, however, think that the problems continue to merit the label "In Danger." Moreover, in direct violation of the "Special Law," Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment plans to open the sea cucumber season this week.

We believe that this world treasure should be put on UNESCO's World Heritage "In Danger" list. To accomplish this, we have drafted a proclamation that sums up our findings. If you would like to sign it, click here. We will deliver it to the director general of UNESCO, Ecuador's president, and Vice President Al Gore. All of these men have the power to help protect the Galapagos and here we're giving you the power to help influence them.

In the meanwhile, GalapagosQuest continues. This week, Jean Michelle Cousteau and the Dive Masters from Pacific Wilderness join us as we go underwater. We will dive 20 sites from the top to bottom of the Galapagos to see how well undersea creatures have fared compared to their terrestrial cousins.

So, log on, stay tuned and ...

Flippers Up!

Dan Buettner

Galapagos volcano eruption forces evacuation of giant tortoises
October 7, 1998

Ecuador OKs protections for Galapagos Islands
March 12, 1998

Tortoise, goat compete for survival on Galapagos Islands
July 17, 1997

Travel Destinations:
   •Going Galapagos

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